IF YOU'RE the kind of deer hunter who likes to bag venison at night, be sure of your target. It might not be the real thing.
But the consequences will be for real -- up to a $2,000 fine, and 30 days in jail. Double the hoosegow vacation for a second offense.
When Maryland's modern firearms deer season opens Saturday, one of the Department of Natural Resources' poacher deterrents will be mounted deer awaiting pot shots by spotlighters and other outlaws.
Don't laugh. The other night one of these deer "bagged" five poachers for wildlife officers. One had been shot so much that its hide had to be renewed. The same technique is used in Delaware, where recently a hunter who shot a fake from his auto ended up charged with a multitude of game, traffic and drug charges.
Delaware's decoy has been shot so much it's practically deerburger.
There's no need for Marylanders to take the illegal route, not with the best forecast ever for the '90 season. Josh Sandt, who heads DNR deer management, predicts a kill of 38,000 to 40,000 (34,518 last year) by the Dec. 1 finale. His prediction for all seasons -- muzzleloader, bow and modern firearms -- is 50,000 as compared with last year's 46,293.
We have deer everywhere, and everywhere the herd is mushrooming. We take more deer than do our counterparts in the heralded deep woods of Maine. Our chances are one in three or four of bringing home venison, which isn't bad for a small state polka-dotted with cities and ever increasing suburban sprawl.
Hunting pressure is decreasing in our foremost traditional deer areas, not because of lack of game -- it's actually increasing -- but because hunters find an abundance of game closer to home. Baltimore and Carroll counties have some of Maryland's best trophies, and Anne Arundel and Howard are inundated by development, yet deer refuse to be squeezed out. Instead, they're making dramatic comebacks.
No longer do hunters need drive to Western Maryland or the lower Eastern Shore. Baltimore County's soil and cover are comparable to that of the upper Shore's Kent County, acknowledged to be Maryland's trophy deer site. So why travel when deer stalking is as good in your own back yard?
One thing hunters might find tougher to get this year will be trophies, but not because of a lack of them. To bag wise old multiple-pointed bucks, hunters will have to work harder, something many deer stalkers are reluctant to do. Why beat backwoods and marshes when other deer are available in more convenient locations accessible by four-wheel drives, off-road vehicles or short hikes from auto or camp?
Twenty-five years ago wildlife managers discovered something not-so-macho about Maryland deer hunters during an aerial survey of their activity while snow covered the ground. From up above, observers found hunters and their tracks that indicated most deer chasers tromped no more than a couple of hundred yards into the hinterlands from their vehicles and camps.
Cagey old bucks sporting wide, well-pointed racks are back in the boondocks. Last year was probably the best ever for trophies, which make up about 10 percent of the overall herd, according to Sandt.
But last year, hunters across the state had something going for them they had not enjoyed -- or suffered -- for many years. They had snow on the ground, and miserable weather that in addition to helping locate big deer, also brought the trophies closer to hunters.
Don't plan on a helping hand from the weatherman this year. The kickoff, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will come in mild weather. The long-range forecast is for cool temperatures reaching into the 50s, light breezes, and no snow cover.
In the mountains of Western Maryland, temperatures should peak at 40 to 45 degrees. We can expect a replay of last weekend, with winds that aren't as stiff.
Other than its deer decoys, DNR will switch all available personnel from waterfowl to the deer patrol, with coverage from fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, afoot and in patrol cars.
* TOMORROW: Bill Burton's county-by-county deer forecast.